I recently found this article about Haitian farmers planning on destroying Monsanto seed. It reminded me of the stories of Indian farmers doing the same, and it stunned me that people in these extremely poor countries would be willing to destroy crops; especially Haiti, which just suffered a huge disaster, and where just a few years back people were eating mud. Now, I’m personally biased, but I wanted to really know whether these farmers were really acting in their best interest, based on experience with these crops, or whether they were like the teabaggers, talked by outsiders into acting against their own interests out of ignorance and fear.
After a little bit of digging, what I discovered was a massive discrepancy between scientific papers, which claim increased yields1, as well as reduced need for pesticide use2, and the writings of NGO’s and social workers which reported increased pesticide use and increased debts accumulated by the farmers. Usually I’d just go with the scientific studies, but I was having a hard time believing that thousands of Indian farmers would commit suicide if their financial situation weren’t as bad as reported. And eventually, I came across a somewhat comprehensive article3(pdf!) that explained the discrepancy at least in part: all the scientific studies are usually done within 1-3 years of adopting the GM crop; but a few studies showed that over a longer period, pesticide use between bt and non-bt crops evens out after longer periods of time either because of increase of secondary pests, or because of resistance:
‘Bt Technology Adoption, Bounded Rationality and the Outbreak of Secondary Pest Infestation in China’ claims that after seven years of Bt cotton introduction in China (1996 to 2004), the expenditure on pesticides for Bt and nonBt was identical in 2004 at $101 per ha and the earnings from Bt cotton were lower [Mishra 2006]. Narayanamoorthy and Kalamkar (2006) reported the economical viability of Bt cotton for Indian farmers (Maharashtra). Contrary to expectations, the total quantity of pesticides used in Bt cotton variety MECH 162 was higher than nonBt cotton varieties. The average net profit from Bt cotton was Rs 31,880 per ha, about 80 per cent higher than that from nonBt cotton. There was no significant difference in pesticide use between Bt and nonBt cotton varieties. However, it is too early to generalise in India, where four million small and marginal farmers have taken up cultivation of Bt cotton with estimated adoption rate of 50 per cent by the end of 2007 [Mishra 2006]. Illegal and spurious seeds coupled with nonmaintenance of minimum 20 per cent refugia by these farmers may result in severe pest attack on Bt cotton due to selection pressure and outbreak of secondary pests like whitefly [Chari 2006]. The bollworm is expected to develop resistance in 2007/08, where it was introduced in 2002 [Kranthi 2006][ed.:and indeed, it apparently has].
The same article also notes the significantly higher fertilizer reqirements of bt-cotton:
Fertiliser use was the highest in the case of Bt cotton, followed by hybrid cotton and was the least in the nonhybrid cotton varieties. The nitrogenous fertiliser use in Bt cotton was higher by 23 and 31 per cent when compared to the other hybrid and nonhybrid varieties, respectively. The respective phosphatic fertiliser use was higher by 17 and 50 per cent and the potashic fertiliser use was higher by 104 and 413 per cent. The use of zincsulphate was also higher in Bt cotton by 25 and 10 per cent, respectively.
Note also that at least the potash is an energy-intensive fertilizer, since it’s mined and then transported; phosphate is also usually mined. This means that as oil-prices rise, so will the cost of those fertilizers.
Anyway, the term “incorrect use” shows up in that article as well as a couple others that mention less-than-expected yields of GM-plants. I’m suspicious of that term, since it seems to mean that these crops can only grow in very specific circumstances. In wealthy countries where farmers can control the environment in which their crops grow more thoroughly and consistently, this might not be too big of a problem (though, with global warming and Peak Oil looming on the horizon, even wealthy Western farmers might loose control of conditions just enough to cause problems, maybe); but in poorer countries more prone to various environmental disruptions, and where the profit margins are smaller and income and financial relief in case of drought or other possible disasters is significantly less certain, it might be too difficult to expect the maintenance of the exactly necessary conditions by a sufficiently large percentage of farmers, year after year, to prevent these problems from eventually cropping up and rendering GM-plants unprofitable.
There were other reports of GM-plants failing (or not succeeding enough to be worth implementing): GM sweet potatoes in Africa and bt-cotton in Indonesia4; bt-cotton on small South African farms5 (their conclusion is especially noteworthy, since a lot of agriculture in developed countries consists of small farms, and any shift away from that has always resulted in massive misery, starvation, homelessness, etc. for the suddenly landless). There’s suspicion that GM-plants are toxic when consumed6. GM-companies are prone to stealing traditionally developed/discovered traits, patenting them, and therefore potentially depriving the original developers of the free use of those traits7. And lastly, the development of GM-plants is just another step in the arms-race that has, over the last 50 years or so, led to an explosive growth in use of herbicides and pesticides, which has impoverished and bankrupted many farmers, disrupted many ecosystems with its poisons, and even poisoned people themselves, while only modestly improving yields for short periods of time, while at the same time destroying top-soil and demanding increased fertilizer (which I already mentioned will be more and more of a problem in the future).
So, overall, I have to come to the conclusion that GMO’s are indeed not a good thing for farmers in developed countries; alternatives such as organic farming with local, non-patented seeds seems more promising than the participation in a race that makes agriculture more expensive, more fuel-intensive, more toxic to humans and the environment, more sensitive to any and all imperfections in implementation, and robs farmers of the freedom to use their seeds as they see fit. And sometimes, it robs them of their livelihood altogether.